UChicago Must Defend Professor Against Social Justice Slander
Rachel Fulton Brown has been calumnied and no one will stand up to defend her good name.
Brown is a professor of history at the University of Chicago, but this isn’t just an academic dispute. What’s happened to her is what happens to anyone who speaks up against social justice warriors.
It all started because Brown got tired of medievalist social justice warriors saying that the middle ages were essentially about white supremacy, and that if medievalists didn’t spend all their time teaching the middle ages as a story about racism, they were complicit in modern-day racism and white supremacy — or even outright advocates for the same. In 2015 she wrote a blog post arguing against the social justice warriors — “Three Cheers for White Men.”
The result, of course, was that Brown got called a racist and a white supremacist herself — and accused of “inciting violence” against her most vitriolic interlocutor, Dorothy Kim of Vassar College, because she’d posted screenshots on her own blog of Kim’s defamatory writings against her. More than 1,400 of her colleagues wrote an open letter to condemn her — an open letter that endorsed these defamatory accusations.
All of this is doubleplustrue because Brown likes Milo Yiannopoulos and writes nice things about him. Brown is guilty by association.
Except that she is guilty of nothing. Ask Professor Daniel Franke of Richard Bland College, who has explained the accusations of racism and white supremacy: “Fulton Brown’s conservative beliefs in the value of ‘Western civilization’ have been publicly attacked since 2016 as ‘white supremacist’ by Dorothy Kim of Vassar.” Professor Brown’s “incitement to violence”? Professor Franke properly concluded that “Fulton Brown’s response to Kim hardly qualifies as ‘persecution.’”
Brown hasn’t been fired. She has tenure at the University of Chicago, and the university isn’t yet the sort of place to fire you because you’ve run afoul of social justice warriors. But neither has it defended her. The University of Chicago says that it supports Brown’s right to speak freely — but it won’t say that she’s innocent of these defamatory charges. The department of history does the same, and phrases the debate as one of moral equivalence between the defamer and the defamed: “We condemn the many forms of hate speech rippling out from this debate, and invite both participants and observers to do the same.”
The unwillingness of any academic institution to defend Professor Brown forthrightly surely has a chilling effect on freedom of speech. Every untenured professor — and every tenured professor at an institution less committed to free speech than the University of Chicago — knows that the failure to rebut these accusations is a soft acquiescence to a speech code. If you speak up against the social justice warriors, you are an outlaw who deserves to be calumnied, and certainly doesn’t deserve a job teaching students.
But this is not just a question of freedom of speech. It is a question of Brown’s good name as a scholar — of her reputation. It is a question of whether she has adhered to standards of professional ethics. It is a question, indeed, of the honor of the academic institutions who claim her as a member. She has been calumnied; they should publicly vindicate her reputation. If they fail to do so, their own reputation should be tarnished in the eyes of the world.
The National Association of Scholars (NAS) is now calling on the academic institutions who should be defending Brown’s good name to do their duty by her. They should not just use the language of “academic freedom” and “institutional neutrality”; they should state publicly that she is an honorable scholar in good standing.
There’s a simple standard they can use. They should declare that Professor Brown’s professional character meets the standards in the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) Statement on Professional Ethics. In particular, they should state that Professor Brown has fulfilled all “obligations that derive from common membership in the community of scholars,” and that she has never “discriminate[d] against or harass[ed] colleagues.”
Every academic institution ought to make this statement. NAS President Peter Wood has sent letters to the individuals who are responsible for institutions that should feel most responsible for defending Professor Brown’s honor — Robert J. Zimmer (President, University of Chicago), Amanda Woodward (Dean, Division of the Social Sciences, University of Chicago), Adrian Johns (Interim Chair, Department of History, University of Chicago), and David Wallace (President, Medieval Academy of America).
So far, he’s received letters from Woodward and Wallace that simply repeat the boilerplate about academic freedom and institutional neutrality.
We will repeat our counsel to these institutions. And if you sign the NAS’s Open Letter in support of Professor Brown, which affirms the signatories’ belief in Rachel Fulton Brown’s good character, we can add your name to the list of those urging these institutions, civilly and respectfully, to do their duty.
And if her academic institutions continue to fail her, Professor Brown should know that her fellow professors, and her fellow Americans, do not believe these calumnies.
David Randall is the Director of Research at the National Association of Scholars.